How the Mormon GOP runs Utah with a collectivist touch

  • Paul Lachine
  • Steeples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rise above the sprawl of Lehi, south of Salt Lake City on Utah's booming Wasatch Front.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • Matt Godfrey, who just finished three terms as mayor of Ogden, Utah, pushed for downtown redevelopment in buildings such as the former American Can Company, now home to Amer Sports.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, a new downtown project developed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • The city-sponsored restoration project on Jefferson Avenue, in Ogden

    Ed Kosmicki
  • The church-built Colonial Court apartment complex in Ogden. The church is also renovating its Ogden temple and working on a $250 million mixed-use development surrounding it.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • Utah's mass transit revolution began before the 2002 Olympics with the federally funded TRAX light rail system. It continues to grow with city, state and federal dollars.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • A young family watches indoor skydiving at the Salomon Center sports adventure complex in Ogden, Utah.

    Ed Kosmicki

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For the half-century after they first settled in Utah, the Mormons were pummeled by oppressive legislation from a U.S. Congress that not only disliked polygamy (a practice the church officially abandoned in the early 1900s), but also resented the religion's collectivist economic ways, which threatened the era's captains of industry. Utah's never really gotten over it. This year, the state Legislature, which is 77 percent Republican, showed its disdain by passing a bill trying to "take back" federally managed land. While the move is seen as largely symbolic, it still rankles those who know how dependent the state is on the federal government. "Excuse me," says Knold, the state economist, in reference to the take-back-the-land bill, "do you realize how big that is in our economy?"

Really big. Federal agencies employ some 36,000 people across the state, the most per capita in the West along with New Mexico and Montana, and those workers get higher wages, on average, than those in most every other industry in Utah. The state received a substantial chunk of American Recovery Act stimulus funds, and Utahns collectively get more revenue from the feds than they pay in taxes, as is the case with most Western states. Communities near the gateways of Utah's national parks would dry up and blow away without the 6 million visits per year to the parks, and having all that federal land -- i.e. open space -- near the urban Wasatch Front boosts "quality of life," that elusive but essential ingredient for a healthy economy.

In Ogden, the federal government provides a cornerstone for the city's downtown revitalization, and its economy as a whole. Since the 1950s, the Internal Revenue Service has had a regional headquarters in Ogden, with thousands of employees. But when Godfrey got into office, the IRS was preparing to move further out into suburbia.

Godfrey fought back. After asking nicely, then invoking administrative orders mandating that the IRS move to downtown historic buildings if feasible, Godfrey finally threatened to take the agency to court. "It got ugly," says Godfrey. Finally, the IRS agreed to become "urban pioneers" with a $20 million project that combined renovation of old structures with construction of new ones. The IRS brought more than 1,000 jobs into downtown Ogden. Today, it remains Ogden's biggest employer, with more than 6,000 workers during peak season, and the impact of the downtown offices (which continue to expand) dwarfs that of any of the city's other redevelopment initiatives.

Those aren't the only federal dollars here. The roar of military jets is common, thanks to Hill Air Force Base just south of Ogden and its more than 10,000 employees. The U.S. Forest Service's Intermountain Region office, based in Ogden, provides more than 200 jobs. Just this summer, the feds gave $1 million to support a mobile phone and tablet app development lab in downtown. And the Ogden River restoration project was bolstered by $1 million in stimulus funds, a fraction of the $100 million the county has received in American Recovery Act funds since 2009.

Federal dollars are also apparent in Utah's public transportation system. In Tea Party-dominated states, governors have refused to accept high-speed rail funding from the feds, and libertarian conspiracy theorists say multimodal transport is one of the land-use planning methods employed by Agenda 21 folks to turn sovereignty over to the United Nations. In a 2011 column, conservative pundit George Will wrote that progressives love trains because it furthers "their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

But over the last decade or so, Utah has been able to wage a mass transit revolution with support from the public and a host of local leaders, including Godfrey. The expansion began prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Salt Lake built its TRAX light rail system using federal dollars brought in with the help of then-Sen. Bennett, who ultimately lost his office to the Tea Party revolution. The TRAX system has grown rapidly since, funded in large part by a sales tax increase for which Utahns voted, along with city, state and federal dollars. Then, in 2008, the $600 million FrontRunner line from Salt Lake City to Ogden was completed, with some 80 percent paid for by grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In an op-ed marveling at the strides Utah has made on the transit front, Janet Kavinoky, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that in her native Wyoming, "people drive; transit is for big city folks and liberals." However, "Folks in the Salt Lake City metro area think differently than the rural Westerners I remember from my childhood. ... They respond to demands of businesses that want their employees to have multiple ways to get to work, and want to locate in a place with a good quality of life."

Indeed, Utah's long-term transit plans would make the George Wills of the world blanch. They include more public transit, not only for the Wasatch Front, but even in places like St. George, in Utah's Dixie. In the nearer-term, the FrontRunner will soon be extended south to Provo, and the TRAX system will reach out to the Salt Lake City airport. Land-use planners, spurred by the Envision Utah process, are urging cities to develop regulations and zoning that would cluster growth around transit stops. (Interestingly, the approach seems to mirror that of Mitt Romney's when he was governor of Massachusetts. In 2005, he said: "By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.") It's an urbanist view, to be sure, and one that many conservatives would consider a volley in the so-called War on Suburbia, but it's also an echo from the Mormon Church's central-planning past.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Oct 30, 2012 04:14 PM
The LDS is nothing but a gigantic tax dodge, to the detriment of everyone that isn't a mormon bishop. What a bunch of hypocrites and thieves. It is appropriate that the IRS is the single largest employer in Ogden, while at the same time the state gives Goldman Sachs $43 million no strings attached. Perfect poster child for today's GOP.
Jeff Gerke
Jeff Gerke says:
Nov 06, 2012 06:19 PM
I know a lot of LDS people that are not hypocrites or thieves. The type of people that would give the shirt off their back for anyone. Of course there are some bad apples.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Nov 07, 2012 11:37 AM
Jeff, I agree that a lot of LDS people are really good and beautiful people, I have spent many years traveling in the Southwest and have met, partied with, and been helped by them. I should have made clear that I was speaking of the bishops, they are the people that have bought shopping malls and ranches and department stores and gas stations and avoided paying taxes by making those businesses part of the church. By paying those taxes to the LDS instead of the elected local, state, and federal governments, they have created a de facto government within the LDS. I think most Americans agree that churches should not be running governments.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 11, 2012 07:23 PM
I am curious why in the statistical chart on federal spending the editors chose not to include defense spending. Also there is no indication on the charts whether the government jobs chart does or does not include defense jobs.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Nov 12, 2012 07:47 AM
Kathleen: Excellent questions. I'll do my best to answer:

1. Typically such comparisons as these don't include defense spending. That's because one could argue that since federal defense spending is for the benefit of the entire nation, it's unfair to put it into a particular state's expense "column" (despite the fact that that spending does benefit that state's economy). Obviously, if defense spending were included, each state's "debt" to the federal government would be much greater.

2. Defense jobs are included in the jobs chart. They are included here because a defense job has an impact on the economy that is similar to any other similar-paying job.

I hope this answers your questions.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 16, 2012 05:38 PM
I guess I am confused as to what the chart shows then. I thought it showed how much money tax payers of a given state send to the federal government and how much money the federal government sends or spends in the state. So if the Defense Department buys planes built in California or spends money to maintain Air Force or Naval bases in Washington that wouldn't show in this chart?
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Nov 19, 2012 12:03 PM
It's a really good question, and unfortunately I don't have a great answer, although I can tell you why I chose to leave defense spending out.

This type of comparison is going to be messy and inexact no matter how you slice it. That's true if you're trying to figure out whether a particular individual is getting more from the federal government than he/she pays in taxes; it's even more true, I think, when you try to extend it to the state level. But the defense spending thing...

1. The first reason is for consistency's sake. Typically, when this federal revenues vs. spending comparison is done, defense spending is left out. I suspect that this is for the reason I gave before: Because defense spending is for the benefit of the whole nation, it's could be decreed unfair to put defense spending in the "expenses" column for a particular state, even if the spending was done in that state (as opposed to social security, Medicaid, or grants to schools, for example).

2. Of course, this leaves plenty of grey areas like the ones you mention. If a Utah company is paid by the military to build rockets, it's providing jobs to the people in that state, in the same exact way as the IRS is providing jobs to people in that state, for the benefit of the entire nation.

3. This is where it gets messy, and the person who's making a graph like this one has to make somewhat arbitrary decisions about what kind of spending to include, and what kind not to include. The Consolidated Federal Funds Report is set up in a way that makes it easy to pull defense spending, in general, out of the equation. It has two major categories of spending: Defense and Non-Defense. Everything else is a line-item.

So, this is where precedent comes in again: In order to be consistent, I chose to leave out defense, though I had the exact same qualms and questions that you had.

Generally speaking, the overall message remains the same whether you include defense spending or not: Nearly all Western states receive more in federal spending than they collectively pay in taxes. With defense spending added in, things simply become more lopsided for every state. Colorado is the exception to that: Without defense spending, it pays more in taxes than it gets back. With defense spending added in, it, too, has a spending deficit with the feds.

Thanks again for the questions.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 25, 2012 02:06 PM
Thank you, Jonathan, for your comments. I may have been operating under a misconception or things have changed. Because a number of years ago, I saw numbers that showed that Oregon was a net exporter of federal taxes with the explanation that Oregon has no bases or large military contractors. But that may have been when Oregon's economy was in better shape. And when Oregon wasn't getting timber payments.
I also think that since Defense is something like 60% of Congress's "discretionary" spending that the impact of that money should be noted when we look at the decisions that the western Congressional delegations make.
Jeffrey Mendenhall
Jeffrey Mendenhall says:
Feb 18, 2013 11:13 AM
The LDS heritage of collectivism is an ironic fact of history rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the typically rabid GOP extremists in control of the Utah state legislature. As a former teacher and curriculum writer, I've seen an admirable commitment to education become a hostage to political views so outrageous as to call the word "democracy" a "code word" used by Communists to indoctrinate our children. The Alpine school district went so far as to remove this word from their century-old district charter! The consequence of such utter nonsense is that Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the US, in part due to our ridiculously high birth rate, lower even than Mississippi. Stupid, selfish, and demonstrably wrong for continued investment into the state (dumbing down a previously well-educated workforce). If governing for the "common good" as Jefferson called it is beyond the ideologues on Capitol Hill in SLC, then simple, basic dollars and cents must motivate semi-enlightened decision-making. Brother Brigham would hate this city, and this state today.